Summer ’93 Debrief

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The opinion I formed after listening to the first couple weeks of Phish’s summer ’93 tour was that the band had more or less picked right back up where they left off at the end of the marathon winter/spring tour. Or, more accurately stated, they picked up where winter/spring left off, putting aside the stellar and improvisational week of shows in May that ended that tour. Most shows from early summer – through the end of July – show the band focusing on breakneck tempos, technical precision, and structured chaos during the ‘jamming songs’ (“Stash,” “David Bowie,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Tweezer,” etc.). To be sure, the tempos were somehow cranked up even further for this tour (for example: check out the blistering first set from Philadelphia!), and the dedication to precision made nearly every performance of compositional-heavyweights like “Divided Sky” and “Fluffhead” a pleasure to listen to. However, the band’s approach through the end of July towards their style of playing and construction of setlists largely echoed the approach from March and April.

Phish’s approach towards their shows may have been more of an incremental development from the end of winter/spring than a huge departure, but some differences between summer and spring nevertheless became apparent quite quickly. One of the most obvious changes between tours was the impact that the new song debuts made on setlists night to night. “2001” and “Purple Rain” both became ubiquitous presences on the stage after their debuts on the 16th, and neither song varied between performances. “2001” became the de facto set 2 opener, usually serving as rave up before the band dropped into deeper cut, whereas “Purple Rain” became the most common ‘Henrietta’ segment of the tour. “Daniel Saw the Stone” also debuted at the beginning of the tour and became a constant setlist fixture, though its position in the setlist on any given night was much more varied. The biggest moments of the show still usually came from the songs that they came from during the winter/spring, with one huge exception: “Run Like an Antelope.” “Antelope” was often performed in a standard, typical-great fashion throughout winter/spring, but the song absolutely exploded with energy on a nightly basis this summer, and that trend began right at the beginning of tour. Additionally, while the band had begun to crack the code of “Split Open and Melt” by the end of winter/spring, the song impressed on a much more consistent basis from the very beginning of summer tour.

The highlight of the pre-August shows of tour comes on July 24th, Phish’s debut headlining performance at Great Woods. This Great Woods show feels like the culmination of everything the band had been working towards – a tightly constructed setlist with lots of compositional weight, high-energy rocking, and impressive improvisational diversions. I would point to this show as the highest peak of July, but the surrounding shows on the 23rd and 25th, in Wantagh NY and Stanhope NJ respectively, are very fun and entertaining as well.

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Rift promotional video (1993)

Before moving on to August, I would be remiss to not discuss the band’s final H.O.R.D.E. appearances on the 21st and 27th. Consistent with the band’s approach to their festival appearances in May (and throughout 3.0), they largely play it close to the vest during these shows. This lack of risk-taking combined with an uncharacteristic sloppiness (for the time) leads the H.O.R.D.E. appearance on the 21st to be perhaps the least impressive set of the entire tour. The set on the 27th is much more solid, and ends with a “You Enjoy Myself” that is the clear highlight of the H.O.R.D.E. sets. Guests join the band during “YEM,” and the song gets blown out into an awesome free-jazz freak-out (and is left unfinished). Fans of unusual “YEMs” will definitely want to check this one out.

And then August begins. As I said above, the Great Woods show felt like the culmination of the winter/spring + early-summer approach towards shows (as did the winter/spring tour-ending May shows). So where does the band go next? Listening to the August 2nd show, it kind of feels like the band is asking that question as well, because during that show they essentially throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. Fortunately for us listeners, virtually everything they throw at us during that show is awesome. The band surprises the audience with not one, not two, but four of the biggest bust-outs of the tour so far (including great cuts like “La Grange,” “Brother,” and “Sparks”), and also present the tour-debut of “Bathtub Gin,” which they promptly break open and take for the longest and most glorious ride of the song’s brief history to this point. This is the kind of show where a ridiculous and highly-entertaining “Antelope > Makisupa Policeman Reprise > Antelope” at the end of the second set is almost an afterthought, because of how mind-melting the show to that point has been. It’s a fiery, risk-taking show that is full of everything that makes Phish awesome. The August 2nd show instantly raises the stakes for the rest of the tour. If the band can jam outside a song’s structure on the snap of a finger, like they do in this “Gin,” what’s them to stop them from doing it again?

This monumental show is followed by one of the weakest of the month, as the band seems to come-down from the outflowing of creativity the night before. After this brief night of relative rest, however, the band begins to return to the same well they visited on the 2nd on a nightly basis, and the explanation for this tour’s legendary status becomes increasingly and obviously apparent. Picking favorites from the next few weeks is a fool’s errand, as virtually every show between August 6th and August 20th contains stunning improvisation and creativity. In particular, the band simply barnstorms through seven incredible nights in a row in the middle of the month; a run of shows that led me to give out three 5/5 ratings (8/13, 8/15, 8/16). I’ll deconstruct some of the highlights from this period in more detail in blog posts to come. Suffice to say, pick a date from this period and you’ll find some great music to listen to.

After a superb performance at Red Rocks on the 20th, the band hits a bit of a late-tour lull as they tour the northwest. The band reins in their newfound spontaneity just a smidge, perhaps in part due to some exhaustion after being on the road for over a month, and undoubtedly influenced by the almost full-set guest sit-in on 8/21. The tour finishes strongly, however, with a ‘greatest-hits’ vibe to the Portland show on the 8/26 and a high-energy tour finale in Berkeley on the 28th.

So, just as I asked after the Great Woods show, what now? During August, Phish dug deeper into some of their songs than they ever had previously, and proved they were able to break songs open into wild, type-II excursions on a regular basis. Will this become the new norm going forward? Or will the band fall back into a more July-esque style of playing after a few months of rest? The long jams of August were often chaotic, lurching between ideas every couple of minutes. Will the band work on creating more fluid and organic jams, or will they push the hyperkinetic style into even more psychedelic heights? I was even less familiar with ’94 going into this project than I was with ’93, so I can honestly say I don’t know the answer to those questions. My personal encyclopedia of Phish knowledge largely does not start until ’95–I’m very interested in how we get to there from here over the next year and change.

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Hoist photoshoot (1993)

It will be sometime before these answers to these questions come, for Phish takes the fall off from touring after summer ’93, presumably as work on what will become Hoist picks up team. We will get some hint as to how August ’93 will impact Phish going forward during the New Year’s Eve run, which will start on December 28th and feature the band circling several major northeast cities.

To fill the time between now and the start of that New Year’s Eve run I will be posting several posts dissecting different aspects of the summer ’93 tour in greater detail. The next of these will be a statistical breakdown of the tour on September 21st, so stay tuned!

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